Making sense of the Facebook metaverse

In addition to being portrayed as a sunblock-covered surfing digital avatar, Mark Zuckerberg used the keynote speech of Facebook’s annual Connect conference to announce a rebrand of social media giant Facebook’s parent company as Meta. Moving forward, as Facebook veteran and Meta’s Reality Labs lead Andrew ‘Boz’ Bosworth put it, “Facebook is a product. Having it try to also be an umbrella brand, which we tried … was really a struggle for us.”

The developer-focused conference invited attendees to “explore the infinite possibilities of augmented and virtual reality.” Alongside the name change, there was much talk of building the metaverse, which Meta is touting as “the next evolution of social connection … (where) you’ll be able to socialize, learn, collaborate and play in ways that go beyond what’s possible today.” 

At the time of writing, you won’t find “metaverse” in the dictionary, but with the weight of Facebook… erm… Meta behind it, it’s sure to be a contender for future “word of the year” lists. 

The word was coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash, describing three dimensional digital spaces populated by human avatars. Another, more mainstream reference point would be Ready Player One, Ernest Kline’s vision of a utopian virtual world where gamers play amidst a tsunami of coexisting intellectual properties from different pop culture universes.

In a post entitled Building the Metaverse Responsibly, the folks at Meta describe the metaverse as “a set of virtual spaces where you can create and explore with other people who aren’t in the same physical space as you. You’ll be able to hang out with friends, work, play, learn, shop, create and more” taking pains to point out that this “isn’t a single product one company can build alone. Just like the internet, the metaverse exists whether Facebook is there or not.”

The F-word is one that Zuckerburg and co are approaching carefully. Much of the media coverage ahead of this announcement focused on the intensely negative scrutiny Facebook has received of late. When people are considering the potentially-damaging effects of social media on society, skepticism around Zuckerberg’s future goals for even more immersive spaces than Facebook’s often toxic and misinformation-fomenting Groups is understandable. 

In that light, a name change can be viewed as window dressing to distract from bigger issues. And the formerly-known-as-Facebook folks are no strangers to user pushback on their virtual reality ambitions. 

In 2014, Facebook acquired virtual reality (VR) company Oculus. Users were assured that they would not require Facebook accounts to utilize the popular Oculus Quest headsets, nor would users see Facebook ads showing up in Quest games. In 2020, Facebook accounts were mandated, and earlier this year, an ad trial started running in the game Blaston. Both moves were wildly unpopular with Oculus owners.

Given Meta’s caution around the metaverse being seen as “a Facebook thing” (despite evident ambitions and investments in said thing), the Facebook log-in requirement for Quest users is being phased out

At the same time, the Oculus brand, well-established in the world of VR, is also going away, in favor of Meta Quest. While describing that decision as “a heartbreaker,” Bosworth notes, “we want to make sure that we have a very good clarity with consumers. This (VR hardware and ecosystem) is a Meta product, so that they understand what that is and build the equity there in their minds.” 

During the Connect keynote, Zuckerberg seemed less awkward pitching Meta’s vision for the business user than coming across as a guy who loves his Quest games, but gaming offers the most obvious point of entry to the metaverse. 

Persuading people that they’ll make business productivity gains by strapping a headset on still feels like a stretch. But getting gamers to take up residence inside a virtual version of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas feels like low hanging fruit, particularly with Oculus keeping the hardware price point low.

Gaming also offers a likely blueprint for marketing in the metaverse. Look at Fortnight’s blend of product placement, in-game concerts from stars like Travis Scott and Ariana Grande, and sponsor-magnet influencers drawing eyeballs while streaming on Twitch and YouTube. Likewise, consider brands like Fila building branded destinations in the game Animal Crossing.  

Brands building destinations is very much part of the metaverse pitch, and Meta’s Connect presentation featured beauty influencer Jackie Aina in a hypothetical digital home designed to express her aesthetic, alongside talk of exclusive product drops, another area where the metaverse starts to connect the dots between digital trends. 

Today, players may pay for avatar skins and upgrades in games like Fortnight and the Roblox platform. But those items exist within walled gardens. One Connect presenter described them as being like sports jerseys you can buy but only wear within the stadium. In the future, NFTs and other digital objects become belongings you can take with you as you bounce around various digital worlds. 

Bosworth notes that “entitlements” around digital objects represent an important concept. “Like who owns this thing and what rights do they have to it? Can they make copies of it? Can they sell it? Can they take it with them into every single location? What locations can they take it into? And that’s not hard to do with the database if the entire metaverse is controlled by one company, which we don’t want it to be.”

There’s healthy skepticism around Meta’s digital ambitions, and skepticism too that Meta’s metaverse holdings will play well enough with others. Will Apple let you bounce back and forth between their virtual experiences and Meta’s, for example? How will Meta’s virtual worlds play with Microsoft’s? 

While Meta would love to be the business destination of choice, Microsoft Teams has a clear head start when it comes to business meetings. Indeed, just days after Meta’s Connect event Microsoft made their own announcement with metaverse implications, integrating virtual experience platform Mesh into Microsoft Teams, enabling 3D avatars that can represent users in both 2D and 3D meetings.

Bosworth claims, “at least on a conversational level, whether I’m talking to people at Microsoft, talking to people at Google, different people, there is a vision that we share, I think, that is coming into focus for the industry.”

Not everyone is impressed. Tech writer Clive Thompson describes the Zuckerberg-fronted presentation as “soul-deadeningly antiseptic, and molded entirely from the plasticine of the corporate imagination” going on to praise Minecraft for offering a blocky, democratic, creatively engaging and happening-right-now kind of metaverse. 

He notes that people pay for Minecraft by buying a product, so developers Mojang make money “on Day One, so they can focus on making the game awesome, instead of giving you the game for free and then constantly shaking you upside-down to see what money falls out.”

Thompson also explains that “modern ‘metaverse’ hype assumes that digital reality is only truly immersive if you’re in VR or AR, with a gewgaw strapped to your head… (though the technology) will get cheaper and less heavy on one’s head, so at some point (years from now) you’ll be able to wear it with comfort for more than a half hour.”

 I’ve been willing to “endure” longer VR sessions for the kind of experiences Meta’s vision for the metaverse promises, hanging out with friends in fully immersive games and more interestingly, creative, non-commercial digital worlds found in AltSpace, the Microsoft owned social VR platform. But I understand where Thompson’s coming from, and see how Roblox and Minecraft engage kids in ways that don’t demand headsets or sophisticated graphic environments to create a sense that they’re exploring the same worlds from different locations.

No matter how hard Meta works to convince people that the formerly-Facebook focused organization can be responsible builders and stewards of the coming metaverse, they have an uphill credibility battle, on top of the well-documented slow uptake of VR technology. 

With that said, the technology continues to get cheaper and the use cases continue to grow. Whether it’s a place we’re supposed to run towards or fight to escape from, I still find myself inviting friends to “meet me in the Matrix.” The possibilities may or may not be terrifying, but they’re also pretty exciting.